[Not] Your Average Church - Week 1: "I Feel Judged"

This week we are launching a brand new sermon series entitled [Not] Your Average Church--Why We need Real Church for Real People.

People have stopped coming to church.

Over the past forty years there has been a steady decline in church membership, attendance and giving.  Young people who are growing up in the Church are leaving it and not returning.  Unchurched people are staying away.  The fastest growing religion in America is "None."

And the response by the Church has not been that awesome, to be honest.  Rather than finding ways to become more open, inclusive and hospitable, most churches, congregations and denominations have chosen instead to circle the wagons, so to speak, and define themselves in negative rather than positive terms.

In mainstream Christian culture you are determined to be "truly Christian" not by the way you treat other people, or who you welcome to your church, or how loving you are in your witness... but by which translation of the Bible you use, which authors you read, what type of church you attend, and where you fall in the debates over marriage, abortion, politics, homosexuality and a score of other cultural issues.

Over the next few weeks we're going to be taking a look at four of the main reasons why people have stopped coming to church.  I am sure that some of us will feel pretty strongly about some of these reasons, because they were our reasons at one time or another.  We are also going to turn the tables each week and find out what we can do to change those negatives--into positives.

Did you know that the biggest reason why people say they don't want to go to church is because they feel judged when they do?

Last year when I challenged our congregation to break our Easter attendance record, I said I would get a tattoo of the church's logo on my leg.  You guys came through, and we broke the record.  So I went and got the tattoo.  The story was picked up by one of our local TV stations, and then ended up going national.  It aired on TV all across the country.

Needless to say, the reactions to my challenge were somewhat mixed.  What surprised and saddened me, however, was the amount of hatred that was leveled at me from people who called themselves Christians.  I was called "a false prophet," "an apostate," and my salvation was called into question more than once.  I got hate-filled emails and Facebook messages from people I didn't even know.

Then I got a message from a girl in Alabama who saw the story on TV.  She told me that she wished that she lived near our church because she would feel comfortable coming here.  All of the churches she'd ever been to had judged her because she had numerous tattoos.

Did you know that 80 percent of the population in the United States doesn't go to church?

(The following contains text from Group Publishing's outline on this particular sermon)

The point I’m making is not about tattoos, it’s about how we Christians tend to judge others. In a survey reported in the book unChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons (Baker Books), the biggest reason people say they don’t go to church is because they feel judged. A whopping 87 percent of the people who don’t attend church said this was a reason. I’d have to say that’s something I’ve heard quite often as I’ve talked with folks who don’t attend church.

Have you ever heard someone who doesn’t go to church say, “Well, if I ever go into that church, you’d better stand back, because lightning will strike me!”? I believe people are joking when they say that, but I also think at some level they believe the implied judgment to be true—not literally about the lightning, but about the way they feel judged when they come to church.

Now before you get too defensive, let me ask you a question. Have you ever felt judged by someone in a church—here or somewhere else? I don’t want to make anyone feel called out on this—so I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands. But I want you to reflect on that for a moment. Have you ever felt judged by someone in a church?

My guess is that most of us can identify with this. Those experiences can be painful. Some of us could tell stories of how we left church for a while or almost stopped coming because the judgment was so troubling.

I heard a story once from one of my favorite preachers about a time he went to guest-preach at a an old, established, but declining church in the town where he lived.  He was standing at the door before worship with the head usher who was filling in him on the particulars of the service.  As they talked, a young woman came into the sanctuary dressed in a casual sweater and jeans.  She was obviously a visitor, and the preacher came up to her, introduced himself and welcomed her.

At that point the head usher walked up and said to the woman, "Miss, we honor God when we come to church.  You need to wear something more appropriate and respectful when you come here."  She turned bright red, and then turned on her heel and went out the door.

Let me share a quick video illustration with you--an interview with a young woman whose experiences in church have been less than awesome.

Let's debrief this a bit with the people around us.  I'll be asking you to turn to one or two people who are sitting nearby and talk about your reaction to this woman and her experience.

You may have related to this woman. Perhaps you’ve felt like you’ve been judged. You might have thought her story was interesting but couldn’t relate. Or you may even have sat in your chair and judged her, thinking, “She doesn’t belong in our church!” Our responses may all be very different. But more important than what we think is what Jesus thinks.

So what did Jesus have to say about judging? A lot, it turns out. It wasn’t just what he said; it was also what he did. When I’m honest about how I’m critical of other people and how I judge, I’m reminded of a different approach Jesus had, and I’m challenged to be more like him. This is important because a lot of churches that make the news these days believe they have a mandate from God to pronounce judgment on others. This ranges from the churches that picket funerals with hateful signs to churches that denounce other churches for not subscribing to the right doctrines. I’ve even listened to some church leaders being interviewed—or I’ve read their comments online about books like the one we’re exploring—and they truly feel they’re doing the right thing by announcing the shortcomings and sins of others. This is something they feel Jesus wants them to do.

So let me ask you all question:  How do you think that's working?  Is pointing out how wrong everyone else really working for the Church?  Are more and more people being drawn to Jesus because of the judgmental attitudes of his followers?  Nope.  In fact, I would say that it's having the opposite effect.  People are voting with their feet.

And this is where someone pipes in and says, "Well, if all you're worrying about is numbers--than you're focused on the wrong things."  Listen, however you feel about it, the sign of a church that is healthy is when it's actually adding people--when more people are coming to hear the Good News.  The fact of the matter is--thousands of churches are closing a year.  Whatever we're doing isn't working.

Jesus had some very pointed things to say about judging others.

Jesus said very directly in Matthew 7:1-5, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.

“And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.”

I have to confess I have fallen down on this more than once.  I remember when I went to Florida State there was this kid in one of my classes who looked like a pothead.  He wore hippy-looking clothes, hemp bracelets, sandals and he had dread locks.  Everyone knew this guy and liked him.  I figured he was dealing them Mary Jane.  Then one day he came up to me after class and asked me if I would like to go to church with him.

Yeah.  I had never invited him but he invited me.  

I have to say something kind of hard to hear.  The Church has messed this up.  It's gotten this wrong.  Somewhere around the mid fourth century things started going south for the Church and it's never really come back from it.  That was when it became heresy not to believe what the historic creeds, traditions and dogma proclaimed.  You could lose your life for not believing the right things.

Believing the right things was directly connected to how God favored God's people.  The Church came to teach that the only way God would truly love you, the only way for you to truly be a follower of Jesus was to believe the right things.

While scores of people were burned at the stake and the like for being heretics--for believing the wrong things--there weren't any who were killed for loving others too much.  We lost our way all that time ago, and we haven't changed much.

I have a question for you.  How do you measure your "rightness" with God?  Is it by trying to things to make God love you?

Or is it by showing God's love for you neighbor... your brothers and sisters in the world...?

What if we decided to change course?  What would it look like if we decided to reject the Early Medieval train of thought that has turned the Christian life into a series of checklists?

We can begin by learning to practice Radical Hospitality.  By saying to people who enter into our faith community, "You are welcome just as you are... no strings attached."  What if we welcomed all people--liberal, conservative, male, female, gay straight, atheist, agnostic, doubters, questioners, life-long Christians, former fundamentalists, Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, Methodists, Baptists... you name it?

What if we said... "You are welcome just as you are... Your questions are welcome... Your doubts are welcome... Your thoughts are welcome...  Because God loves us all just as we are, and he loves us far too much to let us stay that way."

I heard a couple of stories about churches who struggled with being open, hospitable places, and how God helped change them.

My friend told me a story about a stodgy, unwelcoming church he heard about where a dirty, drunk man staggered into the sanctuary at the beginning of the service.  He walked down the aisle and sat on the front row.  Everyone was stunned.  No one could move.  Suddenly the head of the deacons stood up slowly from his seat.  He was a well-dressed older gentleman with an impeccable reputation in the town.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief because they knew he was going to handle things.  To their shock, the older man sat down next to the filthy drunk, picked up a hymnal and began to share it with him.

Another friend told me how one morning while a stiff, inhospitable congregation of a church he knew was singing the opening hymn a young woman came into the sanctuary, slid into one of the aisles in the middle and promptly began to disrobe.  Soon she stood naked in their midst, quietly staring forward without blinking.  Again, everyone was stunned.  The head usher quietly and quickly came forward, took of his jacket and gently draped it over her shoulders to cover her.  An older lady near her came forward and the two softly spoke to her and led her out of the sanctuary.

Both of those moments taught those churches that if you don't go out into the world to be open and inviting, God might very well bring the world to you.  In both of those moments those churches saw radical hospitality embodied in a loving, kind and welcoming way.

If the Church is going to transform--if it's going to become the kind of place were all feel welcomed, honored, loved and cherished--than those of us who claim to be the Church need to practice Radical Hospitality.

Our church has been practicing this for some time.  We open our doors to hundreds of our neighbors every week through Center Street Kitchen, our Clothes Closet, Buddy Break, Crossfire, Partners for Success and so many other ministries and missions.

But we can do better.  We must do better.  I feel that God is calling our church to be the kind of church where people who have felt judged, shut out, marginalized and wounded by the Church can come and heal.

If we are going to change people's minds about the Church, we have to start at home.  Let's renew our commitment to practicing Radical Hospitality today and every day.

I am going to lead us in a prayer to close us out.  All you have to do is listen and as I pause between these prayers--reflect on what God might be doing to transform you and to help transform our church:

God, we want to welcome people the way Jesus did. We thank you for the way Jesus welcomes us...not because we deserve it, quite the contrary, but in the mess and stuff of our own lives, Jesus is there. For that, we take a moment now to thank you. (Pause.)

Lord, we confess that too many times we’ve been judgmental instead of welcoming. We’ve seen the speck in our brother or sister’s eye, we’ve found fault, and we’ve condemned others. Hear us now as we offer our prayers of confession for judging people. (Pause.)

Show us, God, the people you want us to welcome. Give us a name, a word, or an image of the kind of person each of us can offer hospitality to. (Pause.)

Show us how to be like Jesus to the people around us as we commit ourselves to a lifestyle of hospitality and welcome. (Pause.)

God, use us in your church to welcome, include, and offer love, grace, and friendship. May this place be recognized not as a place where people feel judged or condemned...but loved in Jesus’ name, just as we’ve been loved. Amen.


  1. Great words, nice work Leon. I appreciate your ongoing ministry and gifts.


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